Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Last Fine Time, by Verlyn Klinkenborg

The Last Fine Time is about a bar called George & Eddie's, which was an institution on the east side of Buffalo for 23 years, from 1947-1970. My grandparents on my father's side were regular customers, and good friends with the owner, Eddie Wenzek (they are twice mentioned by name in the book). As a child, my father spent a lot of time playing the bar's back room while his parents and their friends caught up and played pool in the main room.

As a work of social history, The Last Fine Time is more substantial than its200-page length would suggest. Blue collar neighborhoods in the rust belt accounted for a significant percentage of America's population (particularly its "white ethnics") in the years after World War II, before white flight, a changing economy, and the migration to the sun belt contributed to the decline of the great industrial cities of the north. Unfortunately, Klinkenborg's contributions as a social history are undermined by the book's schmaltzy tone, which sentimentalizs seemingly every single aspect of blue-collar life in the 1950's Rust Belt. Furthermore, its arch prose style is off-putting; one adjective rarely suffices when three could be used; the occasionally-arch tone gets wearisome at times, and snow doesn't just fall, it falls on the rooftops, well-kept yards, brims of fedora hats, the dye and coke and steel factories, the freight train cars carrying pig iron up from Pittsburgh . . . and on and on. The East Side wasn't full of Polish-American families -- oh no, that would be too simple. Instead, it was inhabitted by families with names like Chlebowy, Switula, Oleksiak, Kuzniarck, Weclowski, Zajak, Kiffman, Augustyniak, Kuberacka, Wojtowicz . . . and on like that for seven - SEVEN!! - lines of text. He does the same thing for other . . . categories of stuff, including neighborhood business, regular customers, etc. It is tiring. Stop writing, Verlyn. Just stop. We get it.

The book interested me, because it was about my grandparents's close friends, and, in equal measure, about my city, when it was still in its prime, and one of the largest and most important cities in the country. But I don't see much reason why anybody who doesn't have a deep connection to the City of Buffalo would want to read it.

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